Redeeming the arts: Colin Harbinson and Dick Ryan

For IV - 20061103

What does it mean to be an artist and a Christian? What does an artist face in communicating truth and grace to a broken world? And how does art play into a life of faith and building God’s kingdom? Dr. Colin Harbinson and Dick Ryan are leading the Arts, Media and Culture major at Urbana 06, a series of seminars and activities designed to enable artists of all types to integrate their faith and their art. Colin is Dean of the School of Arts at Bellhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi. Dick is Regional Arts and Artists Coordinator for InterVarsity’s Great Lakes West region.

StudentSoul: You have used the phrase “removing the stones” with regard to Christians being freed up to live into their identity as artists. What are some of the stones you’ve identified?

Colin: I see “stones” for artists in three areas — issues related to the church, issues related to the artist, and issues within the culture at large. There is a desperate need for the church to understand God’s heart for the arts, God as artist, and how God allowed truth to be expressed through the arts at his command. If the church does understand something of the arts, they are often embraced as utilitarian — as “tools” to use. The arts are not a tool. Art is very different from most forms of communication, and if we want to understand how the arts can proclaim truth, we have to understand how art speaks. We want not only good art but also good communication.

Another area where stones exist is the artist’s personal life. The tragedy for many artists is that as they go into the culture, they stumble and fall. They turn away from God, get involved in unhealthy relationships, and on and on. The reason is that the arts, as with all areas of life, have been tainted by sin. Idolatry is one aspect that is critical to look at, because so many times our gift as an artist becomes an idol, and we become more passionate about our art than about Jesus. Another aspect is sexual impurity, because the arts use the senses, and artists have a high sensual awareness. Another area is independence. Artists are vulnerable to pride and ego, and often want to be free to do their own thing, away from the church and accountability.

Just as Isaiah needed to be cleansed of his unclean lips before he could go into the land of the people of unclean lips, we need to be aware of stones like these that can cause us to stumble, and be cleansed and prepared for ministry in the arts. We need to be sure we are dealing with these stones in our own lives as we go into the world of the arts.

As far as stones in the culture, there are issues relating to the Christian understanding of the kingdom of God, and the reality of the Lordship of Christ over every area of life. It’s not only “okay” to be an artist, but also a calling of God to be an artist in secular culture.

Christian community is a key part of dealing with these all of these stones. We want to support artists as people gifted for the kingdom of God, confident of that calling and supported in the church community.

Dick: I would add that the issue of stones is not just about Christians, but about artists in general. How do artists thrive in a world that really doesn’t value art all that much? And, as Colin said, the church buys into that devaluing of art. Non-Christian artists feel that too in the wider community. Artists often feel insecure about their identity — that they’re not worth much. And yet they live fully when they dance, or write poetry. They really come alive when they’re doing what God made them to do. So we want to see artists thrive.

StudentSoul: How are the arts important to the kingdom of God? To creation, our living our lives as beings made in his image?

Dick: It’s interesting that in the beginning Adam and Eve were placed in a garden. It wasn’t a forest, or a desolate place, it was a garden, which implies a place of beauty. God enjoyed walking in the cool of the evening with Adam and Eve. The feeling you get is that God valued the aesthetic of feeling and of beauty from the very beginning of Genesis. It’s impossible to look around and miss the notion that God is an artistic creator.

I love the fact that God gave away the art he created. When Adam and Eve sinned and then hid in shame, God showed that he loved them more than his creation, because he killed some of the beautiful animals he had made for skins for them to wear. God loved Adam and Eve over his art. We can ask ourselves the question, are we self-serving artists or are we servant artists? Will we also give away what we’ve been given by God?

Colin: God’s kingdom reaches into every area of life and we don’t want to compartmentalize the kingdom of God as separate and isolated. God wants to restore and redeem every area of life. Christ died for every area of human reality, and that includes culture. He wants to restore the distortions that are in our culture as a result of the Fall, and artists are a part of that — we need to be present in Hollywood, on Broadway and in every other area, doing our job, and doing it well, with excellence and to the glory of God, and hopefully in the process bringing a biblical worldview to bear.

StudentSoul: Why is the university important to the arts? Can Christians benefit from or influence the university in the realm of the arts?

Colin: First, you’ll find differing opinions about this. What I’ve seen happening in the secular university in the arts has been very destructive for many students. They face a lot of pressure in and around their art that is unbiblical and immoral. They have to please their professors and are pushed to conform to the values of the department. Those who have walked through it successfully have usually been those who are anchored in a fellowship and have strong accountability structures to support them. They’ve been able to stand up to the culture around them and are often respected when, in a given situation, they say, “I understand what you’re asking of us here, but I really can’t be a part of this as it stands. Can we work together to resolve this?”

It’s really important to have a strong Christian presence in the academy, and there needs to be discipleship training and opportunities available for formation at a deep level, so the artists know who they are and can sense God’s calling on their lives. They need to be encouraged and equipped to bring light to the academy. That’s our interest — to help students emerge not only stronger, but also able to be a light to their culture.

Dick: As dangerous as the secular university can be, one advantage of the experience for young people is the freedom to explore who they are. The university offers that kind of freedom in ways you’d never find, say, in a commercial art position. If you really want an artist to be free and honest, it will show up in their art. It will express what comes out of their hearts.

Even non-believing artists, when expressing themselves freely, will be expressing things that relate directly to the cross of Christ — issues of life that are deep and in need of the gospel and grace.

StudentSoul: Can art be a medium to bridge the discussion around man’s sense of brokenness and spirituality? Have you done or seen anything cool along these lines?

Dick: Sometimes we think of art in ways that can be too small. We think of it as beautiful or decorative, but art has a huge other side: truth. Art can reveal what’s really going on in the world. It can deliver incredible snapshots of pain, agony and the reality of a fallen world. Art is the communication of both truth and beauty.

Unfortunately the church often shies away from this powerful side of art, and wants it to stay pretty. We make crosses out of gold and shine them up, while the real cross was horrible hunks of brutal wood, and crosses were often reused many times. While the church may want to avoid confrontation and be liked by the surrounding culture, the artist wants to get out there and get into the truth. Many churches want people to be happy and to enjoy God’s glory, which is all wonderful, but they may not find it easy to focus on harsher truths. Artists can help do that, and in the process build bridges.

Colin: Regarding the idea of bridging, the arts are universal, because they come out of the image of God that’s been placed in every one of us, Christian or not. Wherever you go in the world, art is important. It captures what we believe; it captures our story, our worldview and our values. By looking at works of art in a particular culture, we learn a lot about the values of that people.

Art is a language of exploration and discourse. It’s a bridge of love. When I’ve gone to China or Russia or Bulgaria with artists who are Christians, we see that bridge. We ask to see their art, and they ask to see ours. It’s not a typical evangelistic outreach, but more a sharing, respectful cultural interaction that leads us into dialog through our art. I’ve seen that happen in so many different ways. The conversation always goes deep.

When we were in China, where being a Christian is extremely difficult, we held an exhibit at a festival in a large city. We sent a Swedish artist ahead of us, and for three weeks, he worked with ten of the best art students and their faculty in one of the top institutes in China. The subject was the Hebrew exodus. They discussed the story of the exodus into freedom using the Bible as the text nearly every day. They asked for Chinese Bibles and actually got them! Out of that study, they created art — an installation for the festival — but what’s more, they talked about the significance of the exodus story, asking questions like, “What does this mean for us today? For us as Chinese people? What do oppression and freedom look like in our culture?” They were touching on some dangerous themes, but the result was deep conversation about the meaning of life.

Following that festival, that Swedish artist and the others opened an arts café in this large city. Artists would come and meet and talk with Christians who were also artists. It became so popular that they had to build a much larger venue which actually had studios and galleries. Talk about a bridge into ministry! Even nonbelieving artists would tell you that this was the place to go to talk about life and create art.

StudentSoul: Colin, I’ve noticed you say “Christians who are also artists.” Why not just say “Christian artists”?

Colin: I often say that “Christian” is not an adjective; it’s a way of life. We can talk about “sacred art” but I don’t like the term Christian art, because that gives the impression that what we do is just liturgical or Christian symbol. I talk about artists and Christians, and that’s not to keep them separate. Much of what I do is to help artists bring art and faith together.

StudentSoul: It’s hard to make a living as an artist. Does being a Christian artist make that fact harder or easier? What do you say to young artists to encourage them along these lines?

Dick: It’s hard to make a living as an artist. But I do think that if you’re humbly walking with God and being open to his plans, your chances of enjoying the ride are 100 percent better. If you’re battling who you are and not keeping close to God, it will be all the harder. Christians may have to pass on some work that others would gladly take — they may not want to dance nude or be engaged in behavior that’s not God’s will. But that obedience is very important, and enables us to trust God to take care of us.

We spend years in the world being “trained” by our parents and schools. And as young adults, we need to translate the stuff of Scripture and God into our lives. How do we know what “old tapes” to keep in our heads and what to reject? As artists we need spiritual disciplines to open ourselves to God’s voice, and we need community to support us as we make difficult life transitions, discover who we really are and then take risks — we want to live fully into who God has made us to be.

Colin: Does being a Christian make a difference? That’s a great question. There’s no cushion in being a Christian. You just have to work hard and give it your best. Is it easier? Maybe there are some opportunities open to Christians that others don’t have. One young woman who traveled with me to various parts of the world jumped into several artistic productions as a dancer with no real training. Later she went to a large university with a lot of very talented students. Those students were just blown away by the level of experience this woman had gained in traveling — she had done things and been places these others had only dreamed about. They were asking, “You’ve performed where? In what theater?” As believers we have opportunities through the church in the world that many just don’t have.

Also, as believers we can serve with a passion based on true understanding of who we are and who God is. Personally, I think the difference between an artist who makes it and one who doesn’t is passion. Passion comes out of identity and calling. As believers rooted in Christ, we have a unique passion that can propel us to excellence and a hope that other artists may not have.

StudentSoul: You’ll both be co-leading a track at Urbana 06 on arts, media and culture. Who is it for, and what do you hope to see happen there?

Colin: We’d like to see people who are at the point of discovering that they have creative abilities, and we want to affirm them. They often ask if their calling is legitimate. “How does this fit with my faith? Does God even approve? Shouldn’t I be out on the mission field serving food to kids who are dying of hunger? How can I be in the studio painting and call that ministry?” We hope people will begin to understand that their creativity is a gift from God that they can develop to his glory.

We also hope people who are already well on the journey as artists will join us. Our hope is that they will recognize some of the stones artists face and can start to deal with those stones, to fully become who God wants them to be. Some will be “in exile” much like the Israelites in Isaiah — they may have given up on the church, or even given up their art. And yet the call of God comes through, much like it did through Isaiah to Israel to remove the stones, to rebuild a highway and restore the ancient ruins of their own nation Isaiah 62:10. Removing the stones for artists means entering into their artistic gifts wholeheartedly and seeing how art can be a way for God to build bridges of love to cultures worldwide.

Dick and I feel that something is stirring in the arts community. We want to help young artists engage the culture at a new level. We sense that it’s time for that, and students are hungry for it.

Dick: I would just add that while we hope that many arts majors, faculty and even artists who have graduated will come, this is really intended for anyone engaged in the arts. Now, this really isn’t for people who just like listening to CDs or watching videos. But it could include anyone who is doing art in some way — writing, dancing, composing music — even if it’s been awhile since they’ve actively practiced art. We want our seminars to be active, and we are hoping there will actually be dancing, writing and music happening right on site at Urbana 06. We hope people will go home feeling a strong sense of God’s call on their lives as artists, as well as a sense of God’s empowering them in the arts.